Doctor Who complete reviews: Ghost Light
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
With cancellation just round the corner, Doctor Who heads for its 16-year break with a gripping tale...
Ask me what my favourite Scooby Doo episode is, and I'd promptly say that it's the one that takes place in the creepy mansion called What The Hex Going On. In case you haven't seen it, a guy dresses up as the ghost of Elias Kingston, a blue faced old wretch who apparently has the power to age people into skeletons (visually, he's the spit of Thatcher's press secretary Bernard Ingham). It's great stuff, even if the villain inexplicably wears glasses underneath all the heavy make-up.
I only mention this since I've seen Ghost Light, a fortunate return to form for Doctor Who after the silly Battlefield. I don't know, Ghost Light just reminds me of Hex for some odd reason – both stories take place in a spooky old mansion with sliding doors, shadows and creepy rooms, complete with a baddie in long flowing robes wreaking havoc. Plus, the title of What The Hex Going On is perfectly apt for Ghost Light, since on first showing, several fans were left scratching their heads furiously, to the point where it looked like a national baldness epidemic had broken out.
Perversely, Battlefield consisted of four episodes' worth of silly scenarios, clunky fights and plenty of padding. Really, it should have been Ghost Light that nabbed the four parter slot, since three episodes is not enough. Like Warriors' Gate, Ghost Light's plot is actually quite easy to figure out, once you know the background: Alien spaceship catalogues life on Earth – Leader of the survey team, Light, is kept prisoner by survey agent, Josiah Samuel Smith, who's evolving into a Victorian gentleman. Doctor arrives at Gabriel Chase mansion to force Ace to confront her fears (she burnt down the house in 1983) while unleashing Light and putting a stop to his bid to halt all change on the planet. All fine and dandy, but then there's what seems like thousands of other plot strands and themes vying for your attention. Technically, that's only one hour – if you include the cliffhanger reprises and theme music/titles that carry on for donkey's years – so no wonder, Ghost Light is more than a bit difficult to follow.
One of the most notable plot strands is that of The Doctor bringing Ace to the very place that she never wanted to see again. Put it this way, the 7th Doctor wouldn't make for a very good therapist – his idea of dealing with a spider-phobe would be to lock the quaking scamp in a glass box full of spiders while watching the last Jon Pertwee adventure.
"Making the previously easy-going 7th Doctor more of a darker, crueller figure is a brave choice"
Making the previously easy-going 7th Doctor more of a darker, crueller figure is a brave choice. Not only does The Doctor bring Ace back to Gabriel Chase, he does so in a shifty, furtive manner. When Ace nervously confesses that she hates haunted houses at the beginning, The Doctor dodges the question, and proceeds to do so until “Face-ache” Matthews spills the beans. OK, so by the end of the story, Ace is 'cured' for want of a better word of her phobia, but there's something disturbingly manipulative about The Doctor's behaviour. Ace tells The Doctor that she faces her fears on her own terms; but The Doctor's unrepentant – this manipulation will also be seen in The Curse Of Fenric, when he makes Ace lose faith with a barrage full of insults.
The Doctor has though, in the past, possessed something of a callous streak – all for the greater good, of course. He had no time for mourning the Pyramids Of Mars characters – this made him look like a cold-hearted get, when in fact he was looking at the bigger picture and a way to defeat Sutekh. Way back when in the Troughton years, The Doctor deceives Jamie in The Evil Of The Daleks in order to save the young Scot's life. So The Doctor's actions in Ghost Light aren't anything startlingly out of the ordinary – and again, The Doctor's evidently been plotting to defeat the actions of Light for some time.
Mind you, even by The Doctor's standards, this is like setting a bull free in a china shop. OK, so The Doctor manages to free Light, but he also causes a mini death-spree, as the survey leader glides about killing off characters in various imaginative ways in order to stop change. You would have thought that The Doctor could have put a stop to Light's actions long before the end of part three, but he's evidently bitten off more than he can chew.
Evolution is everywhere in Ghost Light – from the way in which Control changes from a shuffling, hissing Cockney lump to a terribly posh ladylike through to Josiah Samuel Smith working his way through the husk chain gang to become the epitome of a Victorian gentleman. Even smaller details such as Ace's rapid changes of clothes or the sly “That's The Way To The Zoo” ditty touch upon the subject. Right from the start, we see Reverend Ernest Matthews (and his prodigious mutton chops) denouncing evolution to Josiah in a string of red-faced, pompous diatribes – but of course, this leads to his rapid demise in which he's reduced to an ape in a glass case. In that sense, Matthews is the forerunner of Light, fiercely opposed to the notion of change (“Darwinian claptrap!”). However, whereas Josiah regards Matthews as a laughable toy, he's cowering away from the so-called awesome might of Light.
So-called because Light, in fact, is odd to say the least. Given that he's been built up as a terrifying being with huge powers, it's a strange decision to make him a bouffant-headed, fey-voiced weirdo who looks a bit like a toilet-roll holder. I'm not quite sold on John Hallam's unusual delivery – in some cases, his ethereal, childlike tones make an effective contrast to the damage that he's just done. “I wanted to see how it worked!” he coos, while gleefully waving the dismembered arm of a maid in Nimrod's face, like a child who's just won a teddy bear on the coconut shy. Light's undeniably a powerful being, and the way in which he bumps off various characters is both brilliantly macabre and horrible. A maid is dismembered, Gwendoline and Lady Pritchard are turned to stone, while best of all, Inspector Mackenzie is turned into primordial soup (“The cream of Scotland Yard”) and placed in a tureen to be served at dinner. Excellent stuff, but I just wish that Hallam had toned down the camp whining and made Light just a bit more convincing.
When all's said and done though, Light's just a great big anal nerd – obsessed with making sure that there are no deficiencies in his catalogue – the way in which he keeps on going about his catalogue, you'd think he's working for Littlewoods or Freemans. Hmmm, I wonder if this was a sly dig at the more anal Doctor Who fan – wishing that all stories were like the old days. Don't forget, we'd had the Whizzkid in The Greatest Show In The Galaxy , a none-too-subtle parody of the obsessive Doctor Who nerd – so maybe with that in mind, Light's over-reliance on maintaining the status quo was closer to home than you might think.
Ghost Light is chock-full of interesting, well-drawn and well-acted characters. Josiah is well played by Rockliffe actor Ian Hogg, who adds a great deal of slimy menace. What I like is the way in which initially, Josiah is built up as the main baddie of the piece, when in fact, not only is he just as much a pawn of Light as anyone else, his villainous plans aren't exactly galaxy-shattering. In fact, he just plans to rid Britain of the monarch and take her place as ruler of the British Empire. OK, so that's quite a fiendish plan, and god knows that his mental dominance of the Pritchard household is dire enough, but compared to heavyweights such as Sutekh or The Master, Josiah's left in the gutter a bit with such a lame endgame.
And for sheer malevolence, he's outdone by vile old harpy, Lady Pritchard, a woman who could curdle milk with just one evil glare. In fairness, Pritchard's mind has been wiped of her past life by Josiah, the rotter who took control of Gabriel Chase and sent the Lady's husband to “Java”. Not only that, but the knowledge of her daughter Gwendoline has been erased from her mind – a fact that she remembers right at the end – but it's a case of too late, as both her and Gwendoline are turned to stone. Gwendoline too, evolves – or should I say devolves from a sweet, genteel lady into a vengeful beast, forever hunting down Ace with a pad full of chloroform in the last part. Good performances from both Sylvia Syms and Katharine Schlesinger.
Control's a very difficult part to get right, an Eliza Doolittle-style character who changes the most in the story. Sharon Duce does this well though – her Cockney accent is nowhere near as painful as Sophie Okonedo's, and there's something quite disconcerting about her initial alien rasp (“Did that hurt? Good!”). Another difficult part is Nimrod, the faithful butler, excellently portrayed by Carl Forgione. The prosthetics are just as convincing as Forgione's performance, which never goes over the top. Other notables include Michael Cochrane as the deranged hunter Redvers Fenn-Cooper and Frank Windsor as the rather old-school Inspector Mackenzie, a bluff Little Englander whose rather racist opinions are one such example of the anti-racism message in the story. The less-than-tolerant Victorian values are a neat bookend to the racist attack on Ace's best friend Manisha – and even if the “White kids firebombed it” line is terribly clunky, the message still comes through.
"Ghost Light is one of Aldred's best stories – it's very much an Ace story, in the way that later stories have been more about the companion than The Doctor"
The above line isn't really Sophie Aldred's fault – any actress would have struggled with such an OTT bit of dialogue. In fact, Ghost Light is one of Aldred's best stories – it's very much an Ace story, in the way that later stories have been more about the companion than The Doctor. Aldred rises to the challenge very well, and adds a touch more vulnerability to the usually streetwise Ace. Sylvester McCoy too does well, and has subtly made his Doctor much more mysterious and darker – compare this to the early stories in his run. While we see The Doctor as a shadier character than of late, we are also reminded of his hatred of loneliness in the “Burnt Toast” speech – while the quick witticisms and humour are still in evidence, this is a more mournful, contemplative Doctor than before – at one point, he even reflects that he's bitten off more than he can chew. One of Sylvester's best turns then - The only downer is when The Doctor inexplicably starts channelling Les Dawson while confronting Light in the sitting room – this is gurning of championship proportions.
The DVD makers actually missed a trick when assembling the shiny disc for this story – surely an extended version would have been more welcome than say, Battlefield? There's so many neat flourishes to Marc Platt's script, and tons of clever little references that encompass The Beatles (“It's been a hard day's night”), My Fair Lady and past Doctor Who stories (The Talons Of Weng-Chiang ). It's possibly one of the most multi-layered scripts ever written in Doctor Who, but it never feels too pretentious or smug – instead, it's a script that rewards the fans with each viewing. The production values are first class too, with excellent designs from Nick Somerville, authentic costumes from Ken Trew, and bravura direction from Alan Wareing, who wrings out every last drop of subtlety from Platt's scripts.
Interestingly, this was the last story to be filmed before the dreaded lengthy hiatus set in. Typical – Doctor Who finds its place again with cracking scripts, excellent production values and a great Doctor/Companion team, and what happens? It gets canned – all because of ratings, of course. Pitting Doctor Who against Coronation Street was never going to be a ratings victory, and in the early days of Ratings Matter, the show sadly never stood a chance. Ghost Light itself though is an intellectual and visual triumph, a story that doesn't patronise its viewers and instead presents them with a thoughtful, well-crafted tale that challenges them to fill in some of the gaps.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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